Why artists shouldn’t keep their politics to themselves

Pete Seeger singing to a crowd. Washington, D.C., 1944.                                                                               Joseph A. Horne / Library of Congress
Pete Seeger singing to a crowd. Washington, D.C., 1944. Joseph A. Horne / Library of Congress

Who? Why should musicians influence my political decisions?” Those were the words of newspaper Editor-in-Chief and ardent Liberal Dylan Hornby in response to Nova Scotia indie rocker Joel Plaskett’s decision to endorse the NDP. While Plaskett’s endorsement seems well informed—he cites opposition to C-51 and support for an inquiry on missing and murdered First Nations women as the reason for his decision—Hornby’s response is not unfamiliar. The idea behind it is that celebrity voices get disproportionately heard, regardless of their political qualifications.

That said, I would like to present the following points:

1. Everything is Political

The rule that celebrities should avoid politics and just do their jobs is subject to inconsistent enforcement. In 2012, Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended for saying he “respected” Fidel Castro. By contrast, Major League Baseball regularly holds ceremonies to honor the American military. While too many people around the world supporting the U.S. military is far more offensive than expressing a reserved respect for Castro, in America, supporting the troops is too mainstream to even be seen as political. Therefore, the “shut up and play/sing” mantra is often just code for “shut up if you’re a radical.”

2. Political Songwriting is Political Art

The combination of political thought and music often makes for distinctly good art. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” both take advantage of repetitive and cyclical folk music traditions to discuss the absurdity of war with unique poignancy. Phil Och’s criticism of the political centre in “Love Me I’m a Liberal” is made catchier and thus more effective by its simple melodic refrain.

3. Challenging anti-music culture

Not only do a lot of Conservatives wish musicians would shut up about politics, they’d like them to shut up in general. Stephen Harper has repeatedly been dismissive of arts funding, arguing it has no appeal to “ordinary” Canadians. This view was also seen on an interview on the now-defunct Sun News Channel, where acclaimed Canadian dancer Margie Gillis was invited solely to be berated about the subsidies she’s received. Musicians should speak out politically, both to defend against attacks on the arts and to make it clear that arts are not just a meaningless, niche entity, but an intellectually deep component of greater society.

4. Solidarity

Well-known musicians tend to be financially comfortable, if not ridiculously well off. By speaking out for social justice causes, musicians can show that despite their privilege they are at least superficially willing to criticize the system that has given them (or to be fair, their labels) their wealth. Furthermore, in the context of arts cuts, successful musicians have a responsibility to challenge anti-arts governments so that under-funded talents can have the same success they’ve had. Finally, if musicians and Hollywood stars stopped making political statements, there would still be rich people out there willing to use platforms to spread their views. Frankly, I’d rather hear Roger Waters talk Palestine or Danny Glover discuss Haiti than a certain New York real estate mogul talk about birth certificates.

5. Connection

Because there is often a wealth gap between musicians and their fans, talking about issues that affect fan bases is an important way for musicians to overcome this divide. Flogging Molly regularly plays in their current home of Detroit, making their 2008 recession-inspired Speed of Darkness album the product of a quasi-democratic relationship between them and their fans. Since listening to music is an emotional and subjective experience, making yourself likeable can make your music sound better. Connection is as important for fans as for musicians. Being a fan can mean developing an over-the-top devotion to someone you know little about. It’s certainly reassuring to know that a person you claim to admire or at least have a crush on agrees with you on at least some issues of fundamental moral importance (cough, cough … guy in the Brady shirt … you know he endorsed Trump, right?)

6. Truth

We live in a society that sees value in both truth and impartiality. The truth, however, is rarely impartial—we cannot engage with certain parts of life without recognizing their political relevance. I’m sure there are some conservative parents out there who wish Raffi kept his politics to himself. But if Raffi’s going to keep teaching children to love “Baby Belugas,” then we can’t blame him for denouncing a government that in 2012 laid off Canada’s only marine mammal toxicologist as part of a series of sweeping cuts from Canadian water and species conservation programs.

Joel Plaskett’s political stand may rattle a few heads, but my reservations about Tom Mul“blair” aside, I’m glad Plaskett decided against keeping his politics to himself. As a student of popular music, I’m glad he provided a snapshot of his political thinking, helping in turn to contextualize his apolitical Canadiana tunes, like “True Patriot Love.” As a conscientious human being, I’m glad he raised his voice on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women when a far more powerful voice in this country, Stephen Harper, told Peter Mansbridge it was not on his radar. I can’t say I’ve listened to much Plaskett before, but now that I’ve gotten to know him a bit, I might want to give that new Park Avenue Sobriety Test record a spin.

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